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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
PASSION PLAY
at the Irondale Arts Center

PAGEANTRY RESURRECTED
By ROBERT CASHILL

  Brendan Averett and company/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

Playwright Sarah Ruhl does not lack ambition. Her restless spirit has led to plays that have been magical (Eurydice), Pulitzer contending (The Clean House), Tony friendly (In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)), or, well, awful (Dead Man’s Cell Phone).
 
First produced by Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2005, a work like Passion Play could have been mounted in New York only by a company with a name like Epic Theatre Ensemble. It’s epic, to say the least – a three-act, three-and-a-half-hour show set in three different countries and spanning more than 400 years. No ordinary theater could quite contain it, but EST’s new home, a former Sunday-school and playroom space on the premises of the historic Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, is not the usual theater space.
 
As a member of the church, I was as interested in the theater as I was in the play. They harmonized exceedingly well. Ruhl’s production goes behind the scenes of three different passion plays, where the final travails of Christ are enacted. In 1575 England, a small village carries on the tradition, in defiance of Queen Elizabeth, who is determined to snuff out Catholicism in the country. Hitler visits the site of the first and most noted passion plays, Oberammergau, Germany, in 1934. The third act takes us to Spearfish, South Dakota, and spans the Vietnam era to the present day, with a guest appearance by President Ronald Reagan as he runs for re-election in 1984. Ruhl relates how the presentations change with the times, becoming crudely politicized. History, however, is just one of her concerns.
 
In each storyline the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Unwed Mary (Kate Turnbull), the Virgin Mary, is inconveniently pregnant in the first segment. In the second, Eric (Hale Appleman), who is playing Jesus, is secretly in love with a German soldier. The third act contrasts the fortunes of two brothers who have grown up around the pageant, its Jesus (Appleman) and its Pontius Pilate (Dominic Fumusa) – one destined for soap opera stardom, the other bound for exile from his family after Vietnam leaves him with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
 
Lest this sound too heavy, note that the show is leavened with humor and flights of fancy, including richly funny monologues for the queen, Hitler, and Reagan, all played by the great T. Ryder Smith, who pops out of the road cases that are a key part of Allen Moyer and Warren Karp’s set. All of the actors have opportunities to shine, including Polly Noonan, whose village idiot in England morphs into a Jewish orphan hated by the townspeople in the second act.
 
Keeping Ruhl’s penchant for whimsy at bay, director Mark Wing-Davey has allowed his designers free rein to realize her skewed but generous vision, which runs the gamut from David Weiner’s ominous overlay of red lighting to a parade of fish costumes, a spectacle organized by Gabriel Berry and Antonia Ford-Roberts. A smattering of religious iconography reminds us that we are in a church setting, and though it has its spiritual side, Passion Play is also broad-minded and open-hearted. As a reward for spending all that time in folding chairs on risers, be advised that free bagels and Dixie cups of wine and grape juice are served at the intermissions, food to accompany the food for thought. 
 


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